Tolstoy and the Jews: It’s Complicated

A glimpse into the legendary Russian author's relationship with the People of the Book

Color portrait photo of Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, 1908 (Photo: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky; Public Domain)

Leo Tolstoy never gave the few Jewish characters referenced in his works names or individual identities. He almost did once, but changed his mind.

That, of course, does not make Tolstoy an anti-Semite.

One time he refused to allow Constantin Shapiro, an apostate Jew and personal photographer to the Russian royal family, onto his premises, later calling him “The Jew Shapiro” when referring to the incident. Despite converting to Russian Orthodoxy at a young age, Shapiro was a celebrated Hebrew lyricist who maintained close ties to Jewish culture and people, even leaving tens of thousands of rubles to Zionist causes when he died. On philosophical grounds, the Christian Tolstoy was apparently not a big fan of conversion in general. Perhaps it was that. Maybe he was just not fond of Shapiro’s lyrics. Or perhaps he was an anti-Semite.

Self-portrait of Constantin Shapiro taken in the mid-1870s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Tolstoy once said, “I have met and know a great many good Jewish people.” It was the “My lawyer is Jewish” of its day.

Many of his disciples were, in fact, Jewish, though. When one of them, A.B. Goldenveizer, once tried to run up a hill and subsequently fell, losing consciousness, his teacher reportedly remarked, “All this happened because everywhere Jews always strive to be first.” On another occasion, following a disappointing meeting with the well-known German-Jewish writer Berthold Auerbach, Tolstoy described the latter as “Nothing but a Jew”. It does not seem related to his verse.

Berthold Auerbach, not Tolstoy’s favorite interlocutor. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Nonetheless, Tolstoy also had a number of Jewish acquaintances and perhaps even friends, like Leonid Pasternak, the chief illustrator of his novels, or Rabbi Solomon Alekseevich Minor of Moscow, the famous author’s Hebrew teacher. Tolstoy very much respected Rabbi Minor and often frequented Pasternak’s home where he hung out with Russian Jewish intelligentsia.

Illustration of a klezmer band by Leonid Pasternak. From the Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Thanks to Rabbi Minor’s instruction, Tolstoy read the Hebrew Bible in the original, concluding that it was full of “minute, meaningless and often cruel rules,” in his opinion a contradictory faith to the superior Christianity.

“To study the faith of the Jews in order to understand the Christian faith is like studying a candle before it is lit, in order to understand the significance of the light which comes from a burning candle,” he opined in 1880’s Introduction to an Examination of the Gospels.

Tolstoy was not a black and white kind of guy, though. His views were nuanced and vacillated over time. Within just a few years, the “unlit candle” may have become an “eternal fire”.

In “What is a Jew?”, allegedly written by Tolstoy in 1891, the answer given to the question posed in the essay’s title is: “A Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the eternal fire and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the nations have drawn their beliefs and religions.” In recent decades, doubt has been cast on the essay’s authorship, though, with evidence indicating that it may have been written by someone named G. Gutman as early as 1871, and not published under Tolstoy’s name until 1908, when it appeared in the Warsaw-based Yiddish-language magazine Teatr Welt.

Nonetheless, around the time he allegedly authored “What is a Jew?”, he did in fact write the following words to Jewish journalist Faivel-Meyer Getz, “The moral teaching of the Jews and the practical example of their lives stand incomparably higher than the moral teaching and the practical example set by the people of our quasi-Christian society… Judaism, by adhering to the moral principles which it professes, occupies a higher position than quasi-Christianity in everything that comprises the goals of our society’s aspirations. Christian people do not possess any moral principles, and the result is that hate and persecutions abound.”

One of the most notable cases of “hate and persecution” abounding at that time was the infamous Dreyfus Affair, about which Tolstoy controversially remained silent. He also initially stayed silent following the brutal Kishinev Pogrom. He was a thinker and not a publicist, Tolstoy argued in his own defense. Nonetheless, ultimately he decried the pogrom as a “villainous act”, signing a published letter of protest to the mayor of Kishinev and even sending literary works to Sholem Aleichem to be included in a book dedicated to the victims.

Victims of the Kishinev Pogrom outside the Jewish hospital, 1903. From the National Library of Israel archives

When asked about his view on the Jews a few years later, Tolstoy responded, “I can only answer as the teaching of Christ instructs us to behave toward people who are our brothers. The more unpleasant they appear to us, the greater the effort we must exert not just to overcome this hostility, but to awaken in our heart love for them.”

Though perhaps less influential now than a century ago, Tolstoy has undoubtedly had a significant impact on Jewish culture.

“Tolstoy’s Farm” – the South African prototype for the Gandhian ashram – was bankrolled by one of many Jews who admired his teachings and worked closely with Gandhi in India. Around the same time, many of the most prominent Zionists studied Tolstoy and tried to live his teachings. A.D. Gordon, one of the most important ideologues of the early Zionist movement, was known as the “Tolstoy of Palestine”.

In 1928, Nobel Prize-winner Bertrand Russell wrote in The Forward that “Tolstoy is the nearest approach to a Hebrew Prophet that modern times have produced. If he prefaced his words by ‘Thus said the Lord,’ it would seem quite natural, for there is a convincing tone of authority about his denunciations, which makes it very difficult to disbelieve what he is saying.”

Thus said the Lord: “I have met and know a great many good Jewish people.”


Thanks to Prof. Brian Horowitz and Misha Beletsky for their invaluable input.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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One Picture, No Words

The story behind one black-and-white picture, glued to a yellowing piece of cardboard

Was it torn from an old family album? The scalloped fringe must have been cut in a photo shop, as was customary at the time, when even a tiny photograph like this one, was given a lot of thought. Yet unlike family photos, which capture moments of happiness, we can’t see the faces of the men photographed here: their heads are lowered, their eyes focused on the straw brooms they’re holding. What are they doing? Who are they? Street cleaners? God-fearing Orthodox Jews (they are, after all, wearing hats!) industriously sweeping the streets before Passover? Then there are the arm bands – the white bands wrapped around their right arms raise suspicions. Is there anything drawn on those bands? Are those Stars of David?

The Holocaust Comes to Rzeszów in Galicia

Contrary to the well-known saying, not every picture is worth a thousand words. There are events so horrific that even a thousand pictures and thousands upon thousands of words cannot express their true essence, not even the brief caption scribbled in a hurry, on the back of the photo: Ghetto Rzeszów.

When our glance returns to the photograph, its contents are now clearer: these are Jews in Rzeszów, in the early days of the German occupation of the city in central Galicia. “In the first two days, the Germans did not hurt anyone,” said one Holocaust survivor about the horrors that took place there, “and on the third day, they recruited the Jews to clean the streets…” This must have been September, 1939, and at first the Germans’ disposition toward the Jewish population didn’t seem all that threatening: some bullying perhaps, search warrants and various restrictions, but nothing beyond the typical abuse the local Jews had grown accustomed to over centuries of wars and pogroms.

Perhaps taking pictures of this forced labor was part of a program of collective humiliation, an attempt to trample human dignity. Or maybe it was just an innocent photograph? Moreover, who was the photographer? Was it a German officer who was looking to commemorate brief moments of pleasure he derived from the grotesque spectacle, or perhaps a random passerby holding a camera? Could someone have taken the photograph secretly, from a second story window? The high angle may support such a possibility. One can imagine a fairly simple backstory: perhaps the photographer was a Pole, who was horrified by the incident and wanted to document the event. He could have developed the image in the local photography store, where an acquaintance of his worked. As always, he carefully cut the margins of the photo so that it would match the rest of the album. When the photographer gave the photo to his friend in the store, he may have told a little joke at the expense of the Jews – “They’re finally getting some work done!” or perhaps he suggested – “We should sweep them away like dirt!” Or maybe he remained silent, his lips pressed into a thin line, the look of a man witnessing the torment of innocents, soon be led to their brutal deaths. Perhaps he stared for a moment at the movement of those sweeping brooms in the hands of the victims, frozen in the camera eye. Their bodies, obviously sentenced to death, seemed still and motionless.


A Pair of Legs in the Left-Hand Corner

These are apparently the legs of an innocent Polish bystander who randomly walked by. It is certainly not a Nazi soldier overseeing the forced labor, since he isn’t wearing the typical high boots. We can’t find fault with the innocent Pole, who witnessed what was transpiring as he walked down the street, any more than we can blame the photographer who captured the moment through the window; they couldn’t predict future events! Even one of Rzeszów’s own Jewish sons, the Zionist leader Meir Ya’ari, then living in Kibbutz Merhavia in Mandatory Palestine, could not comprehend the extent of the horror. Ya’ari stated before his comrades at a meeting of the executive committee of the Kibbutz Artzi movement in 1943, “How can it be that a city like Rzeszów, that entire cities, are put on trains, burned in incinerators, […] within a few hours? Can our minds conceive such a thing, can our souls contain it?”


How Did the Picture End Up at the National Library?

Every piece of documentation must be collected. Every photo, every letter, every document. That was what writers, intellectuals and ordinary people all over Europe thought, during and after the Holocaust. If not, the next generations wouldn’t be able to comprehend what transpired in such a short time. One of those diligent collectors was Shimon Kantz, a Yiddish author, who during the Holocaust managed to escape to the Soviet territories, and after the war ended, returned to his devastated Poland. With endless dedication, he painstakingly collected every scrap of information relating to the acts of mass-murder and widespread abuse, editing the raw material and filing it away. This photograph is one of those collected scraps of information kept in his archives, which were later given to the National Library of Israel. The photo, along with the other items Katz kept in his archive, wouldn’t give him peace. Katz wrote and edited more than fifteen memorial books for various Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. When he immigrated to Israel, in 1957, he brought those silent testimonies with him, and despite his extensive literary endeavors, the photo continued to torment him. Therefore, when we look at this photograph, perhaps we should pause for a moment and reflect on the silent horror that it contains.


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Back in the USSR: Recollections of an American College Kid Turned Manuscript Smuggler

50 years later, illicit texts and dissidents remembered

Howard Kaplan poses in front of the Kremlin, summer 1971 (Courtesy Howard Kaplan)

In July 1971 in Moscow, after dinner with my tour group, I hurry along a memorized route in the direction of nearby Red Square. Kids are taught to inform in Komsomol, the political youth organization in the Soviet Union, so better not to ask directions.

I tap lightly on an apartment door. I hear noise within and someone approaches the entrance and speaks through the solid wood in Hebrew, “Erev tov.” “Good evening.”

I am startled that he would speak Hebrew to an unexpected knock. Code? Then the voice speaks in Russian.

“I don’t speak Russian.”


I am an American, on my way back to Los Angeles after spending my junior year at the Hebrew University, with this slight detour. I have to wait as he unbolts three locks. Lev Navrozov throws open the door to a huge and elegantly decorated apartment. Elegant crystal fills a tall cabinet. His wife appears, a half-tied apron dragging from her waist. She motions me to sit and she speaks vociferously to her husband.

Lev Navrozov. (Photo: Unknown family member, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

“My wife would be pleased if you would have supper with us but she is worried since the meat is not kosher.”

I’m stunned at his English, look at her and grin. “It’s O.K.”

She vanishes into the kitchen. I explain that his friend, Professor  Mikhail Zand, a recent émigré and Professor of Oriental Languages, spent an evening in my dorm room writing his official letter of arrival to Prime Minister Golda Meir and taught me how to find this apartment. Zand had introduced Navrozov to the Jewish Resistance Movement, a natural ebb from the ‘democratic’ movement of which they were a part. I unburden myself of the Hebrew primers and histories I’m hauling, completely unavailable in the USSR.

“Thank you,” he says. “You must understand Soviet mentality to realize how important these are to us. Everything here fluctuates, dependent on the caprice of the government. There is a thirst for textbooks. In the USSR, where so much energy is expended on propaganda, books take on an exaggerated significance. They transcend their words to become symbols, nurture strength, foster the will to struggle.”

Soon his wife delivers a full course meal. I am too stuffed from the group Chicken Kiev to eat much. Sensing my embarrassment, she returns with a bowl of raspberries on crushed ice. This opulence stuns me and then he explains. Around the globe, people translate from their acquired language into their mother tongue. Navrozov is the preeminent translator of books and articles in the Soviet Union from Russian into English, has tackled Dostoevsky, Herzen and hundreds of technical articles. Soviets cannot buy books from London. Stalin created the Referent Faculty of the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages to produce a generation of experts in Western languages and culture. Forty-six years later, I created a character in The Spy’s Gamble with Navrozov’s bona fides.

Tourists waiting in line to visit Lenin’s Tomb, 1971 (Courtesy Howard Kaplan). Click image to enlarge

For the following week, I continue on my tour which takes me to Leningrad, Kiev, and Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. In the evenings, I meet with Jewish dissidents in their homes. Saturday, I head through Red Square. The guys are waiting for me outside and guide me back to a basement which I see in the daylight is an artist’s studio. I had been here a week earlier to meet the leaders of the Soviet Jewish movement and discuss the transfer of a manuscript on microfilm that I would carry to London.

I jokingly ask, “Why aren’t you in synagogue?”

Navrozov translates and they all laugh. He says, “We have the address of KGB central headquarters if you would like it. Why settle for the synagogue, it’s merely a branch office.” Informants.

I have a present I’ve saved, a slate, the kind children write on then pull up the plastic to erase it. They go bananas.

Navrozov says, “During a year we probably use tons of paper to talk.”

They provide a list of those in desperate straits. They give money when they can. An artist hands me ten Chagall-like lithographs, ink on parchment. They place the lithographs between tourist posters of the Soviet Union, rolled the posters and lithographs together and slipped them into a tube. I give the artist my address. I’ll mail them to him when he gets out. All unpublished writings and art are considered property of the state and must remain behind.

I take a fresh 35mm Kodak film canister from my bag. London instructed that I can secret the microfilm in it, then throw it in my camera case with a slew of exposed and unopened rolls. In my room I had carefully opened the box with a knife and pried off the end of the yellow canister. I remove the film, sever a long length of lead, insert the roll of microfilm and tape the lead to protrude several inches from the canister the way new film appears. I try to snap the round end back but can’t.

“I engineer,” someone says and grabs it from me.

Another speaks in Russian and they all laugh. “He asked what he knows about engineering. He has not worked in two years.”

Unnamed Soviet dissidents with whom Kaplan met (Courtesy Howard Kaplan). Click image to enlarge

I love these guys. Somebody gets it on and we glue the top of the small rectangular yellow box closed.

That manuscript was My Father Killed Mikhoels by the dissident writer, Vladimir Gusarov. Solomon Mikhoels, the Yiddish actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was assassinated in Minsk in 1948 on orders of Josef Stalin who had been pursuing an increasingly anti-Semitic policy.

Before very long, Gusarov’s work found its way to the National Library of Israel.

This article has been published as part of 
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A nostalgic celebration with the Jews of Saloniki

Jewish dancers and musicians in Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: Albert Nissim). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

“Saloniki’s Jews… eagerly awaited the arrival of the Shavuot holiday… They especially loved and cherished it as the holiday of spring, of the verdant fields, of the flowers and of the ripe fruits, and anyone who got to enjoy the greenery and the fruits where they grew in the fields outside the city, in the forests, in the gardens and in the meadow – it is sublime…”

Jewish fruit vendors in Saloniki showing off citrus and seeds, early 20th century (Publisher: David M. Assaël). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

The excitement in the Aegean air was palpable as Shavuot – the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah and the ancient wheat harvest – drew near. The community’s homemakers would get wide pots ready for preparing the traditional sutlach, a dairy, sugary rice pudding dusted with cinnamon; as well as special vessels for fresh yogurt and soft cheeses prepared just for the holiday.

Knowing the season, the itinerant tinsmith would appear, announcing his arrival and his purpose: “Istañador para istañar!” Collecting dented pots and returning them “like new” a few days later, he would bless the ladies and their rice pudding, too: ¡Para sutlachiko bueno!” – “May your sutlach be good!”

Three generations of Jewish women in Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: H. Grimaud). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

Of course the festive meal was not just sutlach, yogurt and cheese.

There were the injaminados – colorful hardboiled eggs – and pastil ­– cheese cake that came in all shapes and sizes with its two main ingredients, cheese and eggs, seemingly the only thing any of them actually had in common.

And to drink?

Raki, of course! Though not just any raki. The kind that can only be procured from the humble home of Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel, rich in taste and full of good luck for the holiday and season to come.

With pots clanging and the smells of sutlach and raki wafting, festive clothes certainly had to be prepared for the holy day as well. A folk adage prohibited wearing white suits and dresses prior to Shavuot, but now they could finally be readied as the holiday and summer neared.

Upper class Salonikan Jews in fine traditional dress, early 20th century (Publisher: Hananel Naar). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

Then, the sun set and the time finally came.

Some went to synagogue, likely struggling to focus on the prayers in anticipation of what they knew awaited them at home.

With the fruits of the housewives’ labor (and Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel’s raki) heartily enjoyed, as the festive meal wound down and dessert was served, the Book of Ruth was read in Hebrew and Ladino, its words sung to traditional melodies. Then some would go back to synagogue for “Nochada de sevo” – traditional all night Torah study – where men and children would sit on cushioned sofas, trying not to nod off as they waited for a boost of refreshment  from the finjan.

Saloniki’s Italian synagogue was first built in 1423; the synagogue pictured here was rebuilt in 1896 following a fire. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

While study, prayer and song celebrating the giving of the Torah in Hebrew and Ladino may have provided spiritual sustenance to complement the physical nourishment of the sutlach and pastil, for many, the highlight of Shavuot largely took place outside the city walls.

Bustling street corner in Saloniki, early 20th century (Editeurs: M.S.R). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

The streets became packed by the thousands – young and old – picnic baskets and mats on which to sit in hand, bouquets of flowers coloring the landscape, excited chatter filling the air as they set out: some towards the Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes, others towards the Five Oaks or the Sheikh’s Spring, while youth groups and the more intrepid ventured as far as the surrounding mountains and villages.

The Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes outside Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: Imp. B&G). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection


More festive holiday food would be eaten under the fruit trees. Young and old would sing songs – some traditional and some recently introduced Zionist tunes. Albert Molcho would entertain the crowd, “speaking” English, Russian and Hebrew, without actually knowing any of them. Laughter filled the air – the joy of festival, family and the impending summer.

Then as the sun began to set, children – sun-kissed and tired – would roll up into their parents’ arms and everyone would slowly make their way home, savoring every last moment of Shavuot in Saloniki.

The White Tower of Saloniki today

For much of the past millennium, the majority of the population of Saloniki – now Greece’s second largest city more commonly known as Thessaloniki – was Jewish. Most of the account above came from the personal recollections of David Benvenisti, published in “Saloniki /Ir V’Em B’Yisrael“, as well as from an article which appeared in the weekly “Hed Ha-Mizrach” on the eve of Shavuot in 1946, three years after the city’s Jews were sent to the death camps. Though dedicated to “Sarah and Leah, victims of the evil one”, the article was much less lamentation than it was a poetic celebration of Shavuot in Saloniki, reflecting perhaps the core essence of a holiday centered around the transcendent and binding power of words to preserve communal memory and tradition.

This article has been published as part of 
Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

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